February 7, 2017

A Somewhat Invisible Ski Tour in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland

Writer Brendan Leonard puts the "tour" in ski tour as he and his team try to navigate dicey conditions in Swiss backcountry. Read more.

We carried our skis through the tunnel leading out of the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe at 11,332 feet. I tried to contain my excitement, walking behind four friends, two of them Swiss (Janine and Robby), one French (Simon), and one other American, my friend Dan, who’d been living in Europe for a decade.

Everyone was used to the Alps, except me.

skier roped in on mountain

This was my fourth trip to Switzerland in the past five years, and it hadn’t lost a bit of luster yet. I wanted to shake one of them by the arm and say, “Can you believe we just rode a train through the middle of the Eiger?!”

But the train ride wasn’t supposed to be the highlight of the trip—it was just the start of it. The plan was to ski out of the back of the train station and across the glaciated peaks behind it, from one Swiss mountain hut to the next, climbing and skiing peaks as we went, for six days.

We popped out of the dim tunnel out onto the cat track and our view went from gray to white, snow everywhere. A group of Chinese tourists snapped smartphone photos of the snow and the Aletsch Glacier that snaked 14 miles around a bend and out of sight 3,000 feet beneath us. With a few words of English, we figured out it was the group’s first time seeing snow, and I couldn’t blame them for being excited. Hell, I was excited too, and I’d been here before. I posed for photos with a few of them who were thrilled to have a skier in their vacation pics.

skier in Switzerland

We turned on our avalanche beacons, clicked into our skis, and glided down a mellow slope underneath the dark rock of the east face of the Rottalhorn. A couple hundred feet down, we entered a cloud. Visibility dropped to 150 feet, then to 100. No one knew it at the time, but this would be the last time we’d see the sun for the rest of our trip.

Day 2: We discuss bailing on the whole thing. We get a weather report from the Monchsjochhutte, the hut nearest the Jungfraujoch train station, less than a mile from the tunnel we skied out of yesterday. The sun almost comes out for a second, we make a plan and go for it. We ski roped up across a mostly flat glacier for most of the day, and the clouds tease a view on both sides of our path—I see hints of black, a mountain, a couple thousand feet above us. It’s too faint for even a camera to capture it, so I try to store it in my head.

Day 3: We skin up the pass behind the Konkordiahutte, and skin even higher into the clouds, up to a small peak called Weissnollen. On the summit, the clouds part for four glorious minutes to reveal a view of the surrounding peaks and the glaciers below. I furiously snap photos, wondering, What if this is as good as it gets?

Spoiler: It is.

We start down, making a handful of turns through powder when the clouds part for a few minutes, allowing us to see a few hundred feet, and when they roll in again, we stop and wait in a world of white fog.

snow capped mountains and lodge

Day 4: Morale is low. Today is the day we’re supposed to be climbing and skiing the Finsteraarhorn, the 14,022-foot peak right above our heads. Several groups of skiers had left the hut to try for the summit in the morning, but I took the pessimistic route and slept in. Everyone came back to the hut before mid-morning, announcing that visibility was terrible. I shrugged. A day of drinking coffee and eating pastries in a Swiss mountain hut wasn’t that bad, all things considered, and we still had three more days. We spend six hours putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in the dining room of the Finsteraarhornhutte.

skiing gear hangs in lodge

Day 5: We ski right into the white again, roped up for almost our entire ski traverse from the Finsteraarhornhutte hut to the Oberaarjochhütte. It’s calm, and I lose myself in the rhythm of sliding my skis forward one at a time, a meditation inside a cloud of white. We turn north, and the wind picks up a little. I cinch my hood tighter. We climb a bit, turn east, and the wind begins to rip. I think we’re close to our next hut? Simon says something and I turn and look up through the cloud, and there it is, for just a second, a building hanging on the side of a granite wall, its roof, walls, and windows completely covered in rime ice.

That’s home for the night.

steps to lodge on side of ski mountain

We skin as high as we can, then strap our skis to our packs and climb up the broken, snow-covered rock to the base of a ladder covered in an inch of rime. I go first, clearing each rung with my gloved fingers before pulling myself up. Wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph tear at my pack and jacket, whipping loose straps. Halfway up the dead vertical ladder, I think for just a second how bad it would be if my boots slipped on the wet rungs. I’m going to die on a ladder, I think, shaking my head.

They better have hot chocolate up there.

Day 6: We leave the Oberaarjochhutte for what I hope will be a day where we quickly descend beneath the clouds and have an easy ski into the nearest village and wait for the train to whisk us back to Simon’s car. I get no such thing. We descend snowy rock and a sugary gully onto a slope and ski down alternately decent snow and bulletproof ice, until we arrive at a chute littered with recent avalanche debris. It’s the steepest thing I’ve ever skied, and I go last, managing to not fall. A couple hours later, we are standing at the train station in the village of Münster.

Out of six days of ski touring, we had approximately one hour of sunshine. You have to wonder, if you go on a ski tour, and you couldn’t see anything, literally the entire time, did it really happen? Well, you can wish you had gotten to ski all the peaks on your tick list, or you can take what you got: a unique experience in an allegedly beautiful place.

I say it did happen. I said we just put the “tour” in ski tour.

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